A short history of fragrance

16 October 2014

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Since the dawn of civilization man has been drawn to and sought to capture the most beautiful scents of the natural world. Today perfumery has become a $10 billion dollar a year industry, which is the result of generations of scientific endeavour and entrepeneurship.

The tradition of using perfume in society is as old as society itself, with the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Arab cultures all using it in some form in their culture. During certain religious ceremonies perfumed oils would be used to purify a space or as an offering to someone of importance on their way to the afterlife. You can still see perfume being used in this way today, whether it’s the incense sticks that are burned in Buddhist temples or Catholic priests who burn incense symbolically to represent an ascent to heaven.

buddhist incense

The fragrant smell of incense still fills the air in Buddhist ceremonies today, where it is used to evoke a feeling of serenity and as a reminder of the righteous path. 

Modern perfumery has arrived where it is today thanks to various scientific achievements which have allowed perfumer’s to better extract and preserve a particular essence. The invention of the still allowed people to properly extract essential oils, while advances in chemistry led to the creation of sterilised alcohols which could preserve a scent for much longer. These new techniques triggered a golden age where people would perfume everything from their furniture to their clothes and walls. In pre-revolutionary France the lack of sanitation led to perfume being used everywhere, if only to cover up other unpleasant smells. Due to this lack of hygiene plague and pestilence were rife throughout Europe, and the natural disinfecting properties of some of these early concoctions led them to become even more prized.

alchemy still

Despite being crude by today's industrial standards, ancient distilleries used the same techniques as today to extract essential oils and create the first real perfumes. 

Transcending from the palaces of Europe into the high street only really began at the beginning of the 20th century when the public’s perception of perfume began to change. Iconic fragrance’s such as Chanel No5 and Guerlain Shalimar were seen as an indulgence comparable to a designer dress or pair of shoes, and it was this emerging market which led to other boutiques and perfumer’s releasing their own concoctions. Advances in glasswork and the industrial revolution allowed boutique’s to mass produce their product, which drove down the price and allowed the general public to indulge in something which was previously reserved for the social elites.

chanel no5

The perfume industry today is a huge marketplace with an array of brand's all vying for attention. A perfume like Chanel No.5 has become so iconic in the minds of the public that it no longer needs to fight for its place but simply remind you of its legacy. This can be seen in their advertising campaign featuring Brad Pitt.

Modern chemistry techniques now allow a perfumer to dream up any scent they wish, synthesising any scent molecule and combining them in ways that nature could never achieve. But it is only due to the pioneering efforts of previous generations and the continued curiosity of people that we have arrived at this point. 

 

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